Sunday, May 27, 2018

Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes!

Over on Crooks and Liars, Nicole Belle has a column quoting The Trumpster. She wonders if he fears that yet another set of indictments will soon descend on him.

That may be, she speculates, why The Trumpster is tweeting up yet another storm about the probe into the possibility of his collusion with Russia. For example, there's this piece of sanctimonious claptrap:

Who’s going to give back the young and beautiful lives (and others) that have been devastated and destroyed by the phony Russia Collusion Witch Hunt? They journeyed down to Washington, D.C., with stars in their eyes and wanting to help our nation...They went back home in tatters!
However, I have a different theory. I think The Trumpster is thought-projecting into the future, and that those young and beautiful lives are a lot closer to home than poor Hope Hicks. Why? 
To the best of my knowledge, Trump's compassion has never extended much beyond the length of his reputedly short, uh,  fingers. So I would go looking for the starry-eyed ragamuffins in and near one of the Trump towers.
Specifically I'm thinking Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and the original candidate for going home in tatters — or maybe going to someplace else. That would be Donald J. Trump himself.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Five crime writers, two funerals, and an obscenity-free cake or two

Mothers, don’t let your sons grow up to be crime novelists. There was a time in America when prolific authors of crime novels, even mediocre crime novels, could make enough of a living to own a house in a nice suburb, send their kids to college, and retire comfortably if they wished. These days it’s a different story.

I had dinner last week with five – yes five! – crime fiction writers. These weren’t mediocre authors or bumbling beginners. These were some of the best. They’ve all won prestigious writing awards. They’ve each published many, many times. Or at least they’ve published many times until very recently. Now they tell me they can’t seem to get themselves arrested. No pun intended. Well, okay, I did intend the pun. But let’s get to the point.

Suddenly, the book publishing industry has largely lost interest in crime novels. A literary agent who was also present at the dinner table let on that publishers will publish a few crime novels. But what the publishing houses seem to be looking for is limited to crime novels written by women and set in either the United States or England. That means no France, pal, and certainly not any Iraqs, Irans, or Indias.

But even being a woman crime writer is also not a guarantee of success. One of the five authors at that dinner was a woman. A publisher had just bounced her 11th book.

All the same, when crime novels about female heroines chasing down crooks in a few select English-speaking nations, as described by female authors, are the only crime novels, you can expect a lot of guys to start adapting female pen names. And indeed, one of my dinner companions reported, that’s exactly what he has done. 

Which brings to mind that in the 19th Century, a woman named Amandine Aurore Lucille Dudevant had to assume the pen name George Sand to get her novels published. These days, don’t be surprised if you read a book by someone named Amandine Dudevant and Amandine turns out to be some guy in a ribbed tank top undershirt, with hairy armpits, a five o’clock shadow, a fat cigar in his mouth, and beer on his breath.

What’s that? You're disappointed? You were planning to have a second career writing crime novels? Let me offer you an alternative suggestion. If you’re so good at plotting the perfect crime, for the love of heaven don't write about it. Just commit it. Trust me, the money you can make robbing banks is a hell of a lot better than the money you can make writing about make-believe bank robberies. And your long term chances for success as a bank robber are no worse than your chances as a crime novelist.

I’m sorry that the author and journo-stylist Tom Wolfe died recently. But I was even sorrier when he matured, several decades ago. This takes some background, so let's start.

The precursor to New York Magazine was the New York Herald-Tribune’s (R.I.P.) Sunday supplement, called New York. Wolfe wrote for it regularly. One piece in particular back in the Herald-Tribune days, made me nearly fall out of my chair. It was about the great publishing sleezemeister Bob Harrison, originator of Confidential Magazine and Inside News, as well as Beauty Parade, and two other girlie magazines named Titter and Wink. (You couldn't make this stuff up, because Bob already had.)
Bob Harrison — born 50 years
too soon to have been Donald

To the best of my recollection, Wolfe’s piece was called The Aesthetique du Schlock, although it appears in his book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby under the title, “Purveyor of the Public Life.” I'll go with the original Schlock title, please.

I spent one week working for Harrison when I was 22 years old, and while I can’t come close to saying it was the best week of my life, it certainly was the most memorable. The memories start with the first day I met him. Harrison was looking for somebody with newspaper reporting experience to write for him, and I was the only ink-stained wretch in New York willing to take the job for $75 a week.

Harrison explained his theory of news by scribbling an invisible headline in the air while reciting it in a loud, gruff voice, and then quizzing me about it.


“Is that news?” he asked me.

“A drunk movie star killing six people? Sure that’s news,” I said.

“The hell it is!” Harrison roared. Anybody can get into a sports car drunk and kill six people.


That’s news!”

I told Bob I agreed with him — anybody getting drunk on water and then killing six people would be news. I only had one problem with his news theory. How could anybody possibly find a steady stream of stories like those?

“There’s only one way, kid,” Harrison told me. “You gotta make it up.”
Donald Trump — born 50 years
too late to have been Bob Harrison

But this vignette pales by comparison to the richness of Wolfe’s prose when Wolfe described Harrison. Before he matured and started writing novels that were merely wonderful, Wolfe wrote short pieces that were unrelentingly marvelous, like the piece on Harrison. 

Oddly, Harrison displayed some of the same narcissistic flare, and surrounded himself with the same sorts of irresponsible characters and self-generated chaos as the present occupant of the White House. In retrospect, they were soul brothers. But for a few twists of fate and timing, Donald Trump could have been a sleazy magazine publisher. And Bob Harrison could have been in the White House, wrecking democracy for everyone else. And you and I would hardly know the difference.

Go get yourself  a copy of the Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and read it cover to cover. Spend extra time on his piece about Harrison, That’s the most fitting tribute to Wolfe you can make.

The world also lost Philip Roth this week. I can’t say I read everything Roth wrote. (He was the author of over 30 books.) Nor can I say that I adored everything of his that I did read. But certain works stand out — certainly his early works like Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint. But also The Human Stain, one of the earliest works of fiction to call attention to to the widespread paranoid hypersensitivity at colleges and universities to just about anything that doesn't sound perfectly, politically correct. 

And then certainly The Plot Against America, seems today to have been oddly prophetic of the kind of America we’re beginning to have under Donald Trump. 

Finally, the case of the censored cakes: Only a few months after the Supreme Court of the United States has heard (but not yet decided on) a discrimination case involving two gay guys who wanted a wedding cake for their marriage, and the Colorado baker who refused to bake it, (the baker claiming freedom of expression in that he doesn’t want to express any congratulatory messages to gay couples, the gay guys claiming the baker is guilty of anti-gay discrimination) we have potentially yet another censored cake case in the oven.

This time, the mother of a boy in Charleston, South Carolina, who graduated summa cum laude from a Christian home schooling program wanted  a cake honoring her son’s recognized academic distinction. She ordered the cake online from Publix, a southern grocery chain that has evidently gone into the cake censoring business.

Mom also paid for the cake online. It was supposed to be inscribed, “Congrats Jacob! Summa Cum Laude class of 2018.” But the supermarket chain took it upon itself to censor out the Latin word “cum” because it looked nasty. Or at least their computer algorithm decided it was nasty. Obviously, nobody at Publix was smart enough to take, much less to pass, an elementary Latin course. Summa cum laude means "with highest praise."

Cum is Latin for the word “with.” Now the well-meaning family was embarrassed by the absence of a key word on their cake, their son was embarrassed too, and the family had to explain to the boy’s aged Christian grandmother what “cum” means in English, and why Publix therefore refused to put the word on the cake and substituted dashes instead, even though the phrase was Latin.

Okay, so Publix is a corporate idiot and an algorithmic dolt. There’s are bigger issues than idiocy at work here. 
Where the hell does a supermarket chain get off telling anybody what a cake made for consumption in the privacy of someone's own home can say, or not say? To paraphrase the late newspaper columnist and poet Don Marquis, “To the devil with a country where people can’t mind their own business…The curse of this nation is the number of meddlesome Matties who are forever attempting to restrict the liberty of the individual.”

Meanwhile, for the religious nuts who started this whole argument, the case has now turned on them and bitten them in the, uh, gluteus maximus.

First, a Christian sues because he doesn’t want to put something on somebody else’s cake. But then a different Christian gets outraged because Publix didn’t want to put something on her own cake. Listen, Christians, are you for cake censorship, or against cake censorship? Decide one way or the other, please. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. And yes, I know it's a pun. You make them too easy.

More important, this is a perfect argument for bakers of all kinds to stop censoring cake inscriptions of any kind. Shut up and bake the damn cake. Either that, or go stick your head in your oven.

U.S. Supreme Court, are you listening?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Rapture Shmapture! Humanity won’t be destroyed by sulfurous balls of flame belching from the roiling bowels of hell. It’s a damn sight worse than that.

A Gilbert chemistry set, circa 1950-something.You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. 
Before consumer product safety was a thing, there was another thing. It was called the Gilbert chemistry set.

It was packed with stuff that fascinated ten, or eleven, or twelve year old boys: chemicals that when mixed together would foam up suddenly and almost explosively. Things that would create real explosions if you mixed them together and put a match to them. Thin strips of metal — specifically magnesium, that would catch fire and burn brilliantly. 

I had two Gilbert chemistry sets in my childhood, a small one and then a bit later the monster deluxe size. It was packed with test tubes, a wire test tube holder, a metal test tube rack, an alcohol lamp (in lieu of a bunsen burner, which would have required a gas hookup) and vial after vial of chemicals. Potassium nitrate. Sodium salicylate. Sulphur powder. Powdered charcoal. Calcium carbonate. Acetic acid. And on and on.

The chemistry sets came with instructions for “experiments” that the users could try, with relatively — I say relatively — little danger, if the instructions were actually followed. I followed one or two of them. So did other friends of mine who also had Gilbert chemistry sets. The results were boring, but we weren’t discouraged. That was because we knew that doing what the book said wasn’t the real aim of owning a chemistry set. 

Boom! Kavoom! Varoom!

The aim was to blow things up. To make stuff go boom. To get huge flashes of light and loud noises. 

It wasn’t easy. The most I ever achieved was to set an inch long strip of magnesium on fire in the bathroom. Wow! Wowee! You’ve never, ever seen such a hot flame coming out of a sliver of metal no bigger than a paper clip. The problem was, I couldn’t put the fire out. 

I held it with a pair of pliers and blew on it. That just made the flame glow brighter and hotter. I held it under running tap water. Nope. Nada. Finally, I just tossed it into the adjacent empty bathtub, where it finally burned itself out, melting an indentation into the enamel bottom of the tub in the process. Fortunately, the magnesium got used up before it burned right through the bottom of the tub, or when my father came home I would have been in a whole lot of deep…well, anyway, that’s not my point.

The nearly universal urge of young males to mix two things together, or maybe three or four things, to see how much an explosion they’ll cause hasn’t gone away. Al Queda realized that a few years ago when it started making lethal international mischief by posting articles on the Internet with headlines like, “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.” Whatever you may rightfully say about the evil intentions and clunky grammar of Al Queda recruiters, they sure as hell know what gives young guys a thrill. 

But now something a whole lot worse than mix-them-yourself explosives has come along.

Here comes the “gene bomb”
—and there’s no way to duck

The New York Times is reporting on the arrival of “D.I.Y. gene editing.” Evidently it’s more or less affordable. Moreover, it's relatively easy for a fairly bright idiot to splice two or three genes together the way my generation mixed chemicals, just to see what trouble he can create. 

In one case, a kid in Palo Alto California who “barely earned a high school diploma” has already been kicked out of the local science fair “for reckless genetic engineering.”

Reckless? How reckless can playing with genetic bits and pieces of DNA (the official name for this kind of screwing around is “biohacking”) really get?

Plenty. Again, from the terrifying article in the Times by Emily Baumgaertner:
Already a research team at the University of Alberta has recreated from scratch an extinct relative of smallpox, horsepox, by stitching together fragments of mail-order DNA in just six months for about $100,000 — without a glance from law enforcement officials.   The team purchased overlapping DNA fragments from a commercial company. Once the researchers glued the full genome together and introduced it into cells infected by another type of poxvirus, the cells began to produce infectious particles. To some experts, the experiment nullified a decades-long debate over whether to destroy the world’s two remaining smallpox remnants — at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and at a research center in Russia — since it proved that scientists who want to experiment with the virus can now create it themselves.

Scenes of agony and raw horror

Do I need to work out the details for you? Okay, but I will anyway.

A trust fund kid — or a kid with a Go Fund Me or Kickstarter page whose girlfriend rejected him — buys some mail order genetic material. Let’s say he buys some that can be combined with other genetic material to make a virus for Influenza, or Plague, or Ebola, or Measles. He mixes and centrifuges and otherwise combines the stuff with a bit of this and a smidgeon of that in his home laboratory. And Kaboom! 

Nevermind a mad gunman with an AR-15 blowing away 15 or twenty kids. The population of the entire high school, if not the entire town, will lie writhing on the ground, vomiting and soiling themselves, and coughing up splenetic blood until they die in screaming agony.

And remember, the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a thumb-sized vial of virus in his pocket is…Speak up, NRA! I can't hear you!

As for all you Evangelicals, hoping that fomenting a war between Israelis and Palestinians will lead to the Rapture, (after which the Israelis, and all other Jews for that matter, can and will go to hell, in your opinion) don’t waste your time. That end-times crap only worked when God was in control. It no longer works when a pissed off high school kid, or an Al Queda operative, or a Donald Trump minion, or a fat Korean dictator with a bad haircut, or a creep with a missing superego can easily tamper with God’s clocks.

But you’re a survivalist Evangelical? So what are you going to do? Move to New Zealand? Viruses travel in the wind, on the wings and in the air conditioning system of the airplane that’ll get you there —if you ever get that far. Death sticks to all the accoutrements of civilization. Death will attach itself to the bottoms of your shoes. So you'll wear hazmat booties? And how are you going to get them off, and where are you going to put them once they come off, and on and on.

O sin-free man,
where you gonna run to?

Will you hide in a virus shelter, assuming you can build one? And then you'll come out when? Once the food runs out? There’s nothing outside of the shelter for you, ever again. In fact, if you dare to take one step out, you’re doomed.

Face it, the evangelical hope for an afterlife is doomed. Nobody is going to ride a moonbeam to heaven. We’re all gonna die, left behind right where we’re gagging, and vomiting blood, and defecating in our pants. The knowledge of how to make that happen is out there. The equipment is small enough to hide in a teen-ager's bedroom closet or the trunk of a car. The price is within reach. 

A good guy with a gun — even a gun with thirty rounds in its magazine — is no help at all when the targets are each a couple of spliced bits of DNA, too small to see without an electron microscope, and there are billions and billions of targets all over the walls of your kitchen, and your bedroom, and your office, and your safe room, and your toilet seat. 

See you all in hell, suckers. And don’t worry about how you’ll get there. When the time comes, we’ll all find it right where we’re standing.

Friday, May 04, 2018

What’s that? There’s a glitzy building around the corner emblazoned with the Trump name? There goes the neighborhood!

Is this the future of every Trump building — and the neighborhood around
it — in the world?
Uh oh! Trouble in Glitzville!

Since Donald Trump became president, “…Trump-branded buildings in New York have lagged behind the luxury market, selling for about 6.6 percent less than the average Manhattan condominium in 2017,” reports the New York Times.

A rose by any other name 
might  actually stink —
and Trump ain’t no rose

What’s that? You mean those big, glitzy, golden, all-capital letters, spelling out the name “TRUMP” on buildings actually decrease property values? Evidently. You might as well put the name “CRAP” or “TURDS” or some such on a building and hope some suckers will want to live in it.

This piece of news, likely gloomy for Trumpistas everywhere, emerged in a story that ran in the New York Times on Friday about a 46-story condominium on the  Upper West Side of Manhattan, that seems about to vote to remove Trump’s name from their facade — perhaps to increase the value of their property.

In any case, the move is almost certain to decrease the level of embarrassment for occupants of the building that comes from having any connection at all with the Trump name. Little wonder, according to the Times, that fewer than a quarter of the building’s 377 condo owners want to retain the Trump name.

The folks who vote to get Trump off their property, or at least to get his name off their facade, will be willing to do so even though it’s going to cost them — and cost them plenty. The building’s board of directors has estimated that it will cost them $19,000 just to remove  the letters spelling out Trump’s name. But that’s only the beginning.

Evidently, letters hanging on a building for roughly 19 years have the same effect as a picture hanging on a wall in your living room for nineteen years. Take the picture down, and there’s a shadow of the picture where the picture used to be. So more expenses.

The Lady Macbeth Syndrome

The building will have to spend $23,000, says the Times, “to wash the facade of the building afterward.” Evidently, it takes a whole lot of scrubbing to erase the stain of the Trump name. Or as Lady Macbeth put it while compulsively washing her hands, "Out, damned spot! Out I say!"

And speaking of great names in compulsive-obsessive behavior, Trump, who sued in advance of the vote to stop the removal of his name, lost in court. But he plans to keep the suit going anyway, with an appeal. My guess is that his appeal will go, if not to the very gates of hell, at least to the U.S. Supreme Court. (Assuming there is any difference between the two.)

Sue? Sue why? Evidently, when Trump was selling condos in the building, he granted the building the right to put his name on it in perpetuity. There’s nothing in the contract that I've seen reported that says the building has to keep his name on it. Anyway, that’s what a judge in New York said, in giving the Trump organization the back of his hand.

A huffy hissy fit

You may not be surprised to learn that the Trump organization got mighty huffy about the judge’s decision, calling it “unprecedented” and “limited to a technical issue.” Some of us New Yorkers are waiting with bated breath to learn what that technical issue might be, or what’s “unprecedented” about the notion that if it isn’t in the contract, it isn’t in the contract.

Nevertheless, the Times reports that the Trump organization plans to appeal. If you ask me, this is part of a long established legal tradition, perhaps learned by Trump from the late Roy Cohn, that even if you can’t win you can win, just by making the quest for justice so expensive for the other side that they throw up their hands and surrender. My ex-wife’s matrimonial lawyer hewed to the same strategy. Trust me on this because I know from personal experience. It works.

Or, to quote from the Times again, “…some residents are concerned about being ensnared in costly and lengthy litigation. ‘I would rather the building spend money on a long gestating renovation project than this litigation,’ said the longtime resident, who asked for anonymity because feeling are running hot in the building."

For some, the Trump 
name is cringeworthy

Meanwhile, plenty of occupants of Trump-y buildings around the hemisphere would rather fight and switch the monicker of their buildings. Condo owners of the Trump Parc in Connecticut are also considering getting the damned name off their building. And two hotels that once bore the Trump name have decided they could be more prosperous without it — the former Trump hotel and condominium in Panama City and  the former Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto, 

Or as one occupant in the Upper West Side Trump condo building said, “There are lots of us who cringe when people associate the building with his name.”